Interview with Jennifer Beals
Jennifer Beals was born in December 1963 in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in the city. With a life-long desire for acting, Beals first appeared in small high school plays and even got an uncredited bit part in My Bodyguard (1980) in 1980. After graduation, she enrolled in college at Yale University, studying American literature. She appeared in her first starring role in the movie Flashdance (1983) while still a freshman at Yale. While at Yale, she also starred in Franc Roddam’s The Bride (1985). After graduation from Yale, Beals married independent filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell in the mid-80s, and has appeared in several of his films. Most notably, she starred in his In the Soup (1992), which won the 1992 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Deauville Film Festival.??Beals continued to find acting work in various movies and TV productions through the 1990s, in lead and supporting roles. Her most recent and notable role came in early 2004 with her appearing as a regular on the Showtime TV-cable series “The L Word” (2004) playing a lesbian art gallery manager named “Bette Porter”.
MP: This is MatthewsPlace
J: Yes! Hi! It’s Jennifer Beals.
MP: Hi Jennifer. How are you?
J: Hi. I’m sorry, I went for a run and completely lost track of time.
MP: [laughing] No, it’s not a problem. I’m glad we finally nailed down some time.
J: Yes. Me too, me too.
MP: So … I bring regards from Judy [Shepard]as well. She wanted me to say hello.
J: I’m bowing low.
MP:[laughing] Well, our conversation today is going to go on our website for young people called Matthew’sPlace.com …
MP: … and really the purpose of the site and Judy’s vision was for it to be a place where young people can come gather information that could help them lead healthy, productive, hate-free lives. So we like to have conversations with people who are advocates and allies for equality to sort of help young people see the world is a safe place for them. … So I just wanted to start out by asking you if there was ever a time in your life when you felt like you were marginalized for something that made you different?
J: If I ever felt like I was marginalized for something that made me different…
MP: Maybe picked on or bullied or anything of that nature?
J: Umm, not when I was a girl funny enough, like anything [that] made me feel different?
J: I had read, or my mother had read, enough Greek myths to me to instill in me that any difference could also be something that was incredibly powerful and that you searched for that thing that made you different — that thing that made you special, which therefore was the thing that made you powerful. Not in a sense of, necessarily, strength, but in your ability to transform things. So there was magic in being different. But I have to say the only time I felt marginalized was as a woman on-set sometimes and obviously not on “The L Word.”
MP: And how did that manifest?
J: It manifested in not being included in discussions that all the male actors were being included in.
MP:Has that shifted, would you say? Or…
J: No. [laughing]
MP: … would you say it’s still an issue women in Hollywood face?
J: It depends on the group, obviously. I mean, there are some men who are more restrictive, and there are others who are more inclusive. And luckily I’ve primarily worked with people who are incredibly inclusive, like the Hughes brothers. Working on “The Book of Eli” was an amazing experience and I felt valued and respected and trusted …
J: There have been other experiences where I was definantly … diminished. I think it was because I was a woman and they didn’t respect a woman’s point of view.
MP: Okay. What would you say your time on “The L Word” taught you?
J: Oh my gosh, so many things, so many things I learned from “The L Word.” I think … the one I live with the most often is the importance of authenticity. You know, being on the show, so often we would get letters or people would come to visit the set … you know, there was one couple in particular that I think of who had been together as a couple for, gosh, I don’t know, 30 years, but who were still closeted as a couple until they saw “The L Word” and it somehow gave them courage to come out. And when they came out there were no deep, dark ramifications — there was just a sense of freedom. But listening to their story and many other stories like theirs I realized it was incumbent upon all of us to live as authentically as we possibly can. Not just for our own sake but for the sake of everyone else as well, because we don’t do anyone a favor by … hiding our candle under the bed.
MP: Right, right.
J: Let it out.
MP: So what does living authentically — how does that manifest in your own life?
J: Well really listening to my point of view and if I am on a set ,say, that doesn’t really value a woman’s point of view, regardless of how they feel, continuing to give my point of view and try to find a way to be heard and not diminishing myself because other people are diminishing me. Because that, I think, is the worst temptation –that, you know, you judge yourself by how others are judging you, and to fall into that trap is to walk into the realm of self-annihilation. Which is not a good place to be, obviously …
MP: [laughing] Did you have any reservations about taking the role and being involved in the show, and that maybe you might be pigeon-holed as an actor?
J: No, no, not at all. I was really just so thrilled to have a wonderful part that was complicated and rich, and was very excited to play someone who wasn’t also always nice or right or, you know … that was lovely too.
MP: Uh huh.
J: And it was a nice change to work with all women for a while.
MP: And as a part of that experience and your experience in the entertainment industry, how important would you say it is to include positive LGBT images in today’s society, in today’s modern pop culture, as opposed to the stereotypical view of what a gay or lesbian person is?
J: I think it’s incredibly important, but I think it’s just as important to tell the truth of the story. You know, I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone to … for example, say that every LGBT person is wonderful and perfect and without flaw and … lets all ring the bells to perfection. I think it’s much more helpful to tell the story as truthfully as you can, and with all of its complications, because that’s also when people recognize themselves, and that’s when people who are not part of the LGBT community will recognize themselves within that character. And then [they] hopefully empathize and maybe there’ll be some kind of shift.
MP: Right, right.
J: So … I think it’s important to be positive, but I think it’s most important to be positively truthful, to this.
MP: Ah, okay. Well, and you have been such a strong ally voice in the fight for equality. Why, in your opinion do you think that ally voice is such an important voice that needs to be heard?
J: Well I think everybody’s voice needs to be heard. I don’t think of my voice as being particularly special or unique, but … I have learned during the course of the show to speak up and to be heard and to be seen and to say what you think. And … in a polite way, you don’t need to be rude. Which, you know, is the danger of the Internet with the way people throw around invectives, it can be a little harsh. I don’t think that kind of dialogue, well it’s not dialogue, needs to happen. I don’t think it’s very helpful, but I do think it’s really important to say what you think and to make sure that everybody is invited to speak at the table, you know, that everyone is included in the discussion.
MP:And how can we do that?
J: Well I think the most important thing first of all is to live as authentically as you can and that will come naturally. I think it flows from knowing who you are and embracing who you are and then it becomes a celebration of who you are, hopefully.
J: And then communities are formed around that idea and the community gets larger and larger. And then, I mean it starts from the individual and then smaller communities are formed and then larger communities are formed perhaps just in that one group. And then all of a sudden that reaches out to a larger extension to humanity, if you know what I mean.
MP: Uh huh.
J: It’s important I think at a certain juncture to be informed about what’s going on. I mean there’s so many ways you can do it. Self-expression is obviously important, to me anyway, you know, being able to tell your story, even if you just write it down for yourself. And then maybe you share it with one person, or several people, but you express yourself. And then there’s another realm of being informed politically. Which is incredibly complicated because the ground seems to shift constantly. You know, just looking at the trajectory of the Matthew Shepard Act is so complex and maddening and really, really frustrating to me. I mean I just long for the day when I can go and, you know, dance on the bar with Judy Shepard in celebration, that’s what my fantasy is.
MP: [Laughter] Well that’s looking like it may be sooner rather than later.
J: I mean you just want to burst into tears you get so excited about it.
MP: Well it does, and it’s been Judy’s mission for almost the last 11 years.
J: Oh, I know.
MP: It’s this bill and things don’t happen quickly.
J: No they don’t and the politics of what to attach it to, I mean who would have thought to attach it to a defense bill?
MP: Right, right. Well and for us it seems that people tend to be very scared or frightened of issues particularly around the LGBT community. And that’s a question that we’re always asking ourselves is, why is this an issue that people, that tends to polarize people so much? What are your thoughts as to why?
J: Well I think it polarizes a certain generation. I don’t think it polarizes a younger generation. I don’t see that.
MP:Very much so.
J: Yeah, I think it polarizes an older generation who perhaps is not as well educated, in a funny way.
MP: Uh huh.
J: And those people will be gone soon, and life will be different.
MP: [Laughs] Well you know and that’s the message that we spread and that Judy spreads, that this generation gets it and when this generation starts taking office, things are going to change a little quicker than they are now.
J: I hope so. I certainly hope so.
MP: And, you know, thinking about young people in particular, and one of the reasons that MatthewsPlace is in existence is [for] that young person in rural Iowa that thinks that there really isn’t anyone out there that feels like them, and maybe doesn’t think that they have a place in the world. Any thoughts or advice that you might give to someone who is in an environment where they’re not seeing positive images?
J: I would want them to know that their community is much larger than the neighborhood in which they live. That the world does not end at that town. That there is a bigger world out there and if they need to leave to go find a more immediate community that will sustain them, then that’s what they need to do. But the first thing is for them to cultivate kindness for themselves and acceptance for themselves, and that the world is much larger. And especially with the Internet. In a moment’s time you can get on and speak to people who are like you, or understand you or who can support you or can at least argue with you, understanding who you are and what interests you have. But you can build a different community because of the Internet.
MP: Well and then, thinking about you as an actor, is there anything that actors can do in selecting projects that would help them increase positive representation of people that are traditionally marginalized by the mainstream media? Does that make sense?
J: Well I would encourage those people to write.
MP: Oh, okay.
J: You know, there’s not another television series that I know of that deals primarily with the LGBT community.
J: I mean, I would encourage people to write. Writing.
MP: So create the type of shows, or entertainment that…
J: You want to create the show that — you know, be the future that you want to see.
MP: Right. Well I have a quote, I know your time is precious so I don’t want to keep you too long.
J: Oh but this, Judy Shepard is precious. She’s more precious than my time. Believe me.
MP: [Laughs] Well and I have to say to you that we are very excited to sort of have you as part of our Foundation family, so please know that we mean that deeply.
J: Well thank you. I just also want you to know that I’m creating a book based on the photographs that I’ve taken primarily during the six years that I was on the L Word and making kind of a photographic journal in a way. And I’ll be selling that to benefit charity and one of the charities that I will benefit will be the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
MP: Oh well thank you very much, and I will let Judy know that when I chat with her.
J: Okay, great.
MP: And she’s also having a book coming out on September 3rd, that I’ll get you a copy of.
J: Oh, I would love that. Thank you.
MP: It’s the first time she’s told her story.
J: I would love to read it.
MP: I’ll send it to you. Penguin is publishing it so we’re quite excited about it. Well and to sort of wrap up, there was a quote that you gave to a Chicago newspaper back in 2003 that sort of for me, sums up a lot of what we’ve been talking about today and I’m going to read this to you. And this is what the newspaper quoted you as saying: “They talk about the fact that history is written by the victors, but if you can make yourself victorious by writing your own history and supplying your own images, then you’ve done yourself and the world a great service.”
J: Yes, absolutely.
MP: And I think that sums up sort of what we’ve been talking about and I just wanted to know if you might have any comments on that quote and where you were coming from if you have a recollection of saying it.
J: I do have a recollection of saying it, and I’ve said it often and in various forms because I think that story telling is a very powerful tool. We tell stories to each other all the time. It’s how we come to know the world. It’s how, in some ways, that we come to know aspects of ourselves, and how we tell each other about ourselves. So by writing our stories, by writing our history, we let people know who we are, we communicate with one another, and we make sure that we are included in the continuum. And we benefit everyone else, it’s just, I mean I just can’t stress enough how it’s to benefit everyone else. Particularly those people who are not like you, who need to hear the story. Who don’t know the story, and they need to know the story so that they understand.
MP: Well and you know Judy and myself when I talk to high school kids I always say, how are people going to know how to support you, if you don’t tell them.
MP: How are people going to know what you’re life is like if you don’t share it with them?
J: And also, how do you even know what your own life is like truly until you start expressing it in some way. You discover so many things about your own life just by writing. Things that you don’t know that just come out through the unconscious. And you pick up on yourself as well.
MP: Right. No, I completely agree and I want to thank you for sharing some time with us.
J: Thank you and give Judy a big hug for me please.
MP: I will, thank you Jennifer.
J: All right, take care.
MP: Okay, bye-bye.